Platforms: PS3 (Move compatible)
Developers: United Front Games | Media Molecule
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Mario, Sonic, Diddy Kong, Crash Bandicoot, they’ve all done it. They’ve all made the apparently natural step from save-the-day platformer to small-time motorsport enthusiast. In the same way that a hit BBC sitcom will undoubtedly have an unnecessary Xmas special, there seems a sort of inevitability now around any key platformer franchise branching out into the kart racer genre. So it’s no real surprise then to see Sackboy – arguably Sony’s flagship platformer mascot - in his very own karting game. But does LittleBigPlanet Karting do Sackboy or the genre justice, or is it just another ill-thought out cash-in for the Xmas period? Let’s see.
The first thing you notice when starting up LittleBigPlanet Karting is that it is very much a LittleBigPlanet game. Right down to the Pod, the Popit menu system, the spherical world map screens, even right down to the calming narration of Stephen Fry. In fact if it wasn’t for the Kart sitting in the Pod with Sackboy, you’d be forgiven for mistaking this game as LittleBigPlanet 3. And whilst branding is important – it is a LittleBigPlanet game after all – if you think back to good karting games of the past (the names at the top of the review should help) then these games take elements of their own games and apply them in a way that works within the karting genre. Whereas it feels like United Front Games and Media Molecule have tried to force the issue with some of their nods to LittleBigPlanet, to the point where those nods feel like a forceful head-butt to the face.
The first frustrating one of these is the necessity of unlocking each level in turn not only to progress to the next, but also to unlock the option of playing it online with others in a (up to) 8 player VS match. There’s nothing strictly wrong with having a certain amount of content locked at the start of a game, it gives a sense of progression and reward when it becomes available. But when those locked elements become stifling or frustrating to what feels natural, then something has gone wrong. In the same way it is a chore to unlock all characters for Super Smash Bros these days, just to enjoy the game as it was intended; it is also a chore in LittleBigPlanet Karting to expect the single player to be completed for all available VS mode matches to simply be unlocked.
But whilst you are making your way through the single player, you may also be forgiven for questioning your purpose. The story which sees Sackboy taking on the Hoard and reclaiming all the prizes they have stolen seems to jar with the need for a karting championship. But I guess that explains the complete absence of cups or tournaments in the game. The only reward it seems for winning a race/event over claiming third place is an elevated place on the podium and perhaps a sticker or two. As such as a single player karting offering it feels like it is missing something – a sense of competition and purpose which is a bit of let down.
In terms of how the game plays itself, the karts handle smoothly with a focus very much on drifting – a technique that can be mastered by karting novices within 2 minutes of the simple starting tutorial. This smoothness is rudely interrupted, however, when anything other than yourself is on the racetrack. How your kart reacts to being hit seems random at best, whether this is being clobbered by items, other karts or all the other random bits of level design that are synonymous with LittleBigPlanet. The array of items at your disposal can either give you a positional advantage or hinder your opponents in a way only a rocket to the engine can. However many of the items are vastly overpowered and coupled with the random physics mentioned above, you really can go from first to last place in an instant through no fault of your own. It’s a frustrating mechanic that would make even item heavy games like Mario Kart Wii blush.
As well as standard races, you will also encounter a variety of other modes. These include your standard battle mode akin to Mario Kart Battles throughout the years, as well as “pick up item and return to base” games similar to those from Diddy Kong Racing to name but a couple. These different events are a refreshing change from the racetrack and where the powered items feel much more at home. Playing these online (especially Battle Mode) or locally with friends will be an enjoyable experience, and is one area where LittleBigPlanet Karting comes into its own.
The visual style of the game – very much in keeping with the LittleBigPlanet style – is very charming, and allows for a very different feel of track depending on your location. However you will find that this design will leave you more than likely struggling to endear yourself to tracks and them being truly memorable. For me the only ones that stick in my mind as having bags of character were the Space-themed tracks, and that is a shame given the various locations on offer.
For those keeping count, I’ve used the word “frustrating” three times already, and it may appear that I feel this game is awful, and that’s not really the case. The game is a good game; it does have that natural fun element a karting game like this should have. It also has a variety of levels, and modes to play through, and as always there’s something very endearing about the way any LittleBigPlanet game goes about its business. However, in spite of the whimsy on show, practically it makes some missteps too large to avoid. As a karting game it doesn’t feel balanced in its controls or items, and that makes it less enjoyable to play.
The obvious other LittleBigPlanet nod that really does work is the ability to create your own tracks and share them online. Using a (reasonably) intuitive interface in the form of a paint roller, and the myriad of unlockable items you would expect in a LittleBigPlanet game, you really can go to town with your creations. However despite this scope and huge potential, I wonder how long into the future people will still be pushing the limits of this game. I wonder how long it will be until the creativity dies down, and people return to the much more engaging challenge of designing games in LittleBigPlanet 2, rather than focussed on the narrower genre of karting.
All in all, LittleBigPlanet Karting is a good game to play, and for the most part a fun one too. The quirky LittleBigPlanet world will engage even the most hardened gamers, and the track creation aspect of the game will undoubtedly provide a wealth of variety for those willing to invest the time. However the frustrating (that word again) thing about this game is when you look to what has already been achieved in the genre then you see that the game just hasn’t delivered on its potential. Instead it seems to have gotten too caught up with honouring one of its big franchises and it has forgotten that what it should be first and foremost is a karting game. It should be a game that gives a sense of competition, a sense of skill, and a sense of fairness throughout.
So when you’re considering buying this game or not, all you need to do is ask yourself a simple question. Am I looking for LittleBigPlanet, or am I looking for karting? If you’re after the former, I would recommend it. It certainly is more of the same of what you have come to expect from Sackboy and his adventures and the creativity element of the game could provide endless hours of entertainment. If you answer was the latter however, you may be left disappointed and underwhelmed. A good karting game should provide balanced physics and a fair item system, as well as memorable tracks and a sense of competition and achievement. But the focus seems to have been placed on making the game LittleBigPlanet 2.5 rather than an exhilarating competitive experience. The spark just isn’t there and as such you’ll find yourself yearning for an Italian plumber and his homing red shells. And ultimately if you’re ever thinking about one game while playing another, you know there are some problems.
- A wide variety of game modes to unlock
- Simple, accessible control system
- In-depth track creator, allowing for an endless number or tracks to race on
- The game's physics feel random and confusing
- Item choice makes races about luck rather than skill
- Tracks aren’t memorable
The Short Version: Sackboy’s first step into the world of karting delivers fun in doses, and plenty of charm and creativity potential, but poor game-play and an imbalanced item range let it down. An impressive content package means little without the on-track action to match, and that means more often than not you’ll have a face full of frustration rather than the smile that should be there.